A Murky Mary Sue: “The Good Wife”

The Good Wife

I started late, but I’ve now caught up with the UK run of The Good Wife – still some six episodes behind the US, but at least back on a weekly schedule. It wasn’t difficult to get up to speed – the individual episodes of this slick-and-sly TV series go down very easily. The broader plot arc is so far lightly but compellingly applied, and only once has it noticeably stuttered, when an episode ended with a cliff-hanging question which does not get its answer for another three weeks. Apart from that single hiccup, The Good Wife is perfectly paced and beautifully measured. It’s seamless TV.

All of which might make it sound undemanding. I confess to raising an eyebrow when I read Richard Morgan including the show in a list of super-TV also populated by The Wire, The Sopranos and Deadwood, but if it surely isn’t anything like these titans – indeed, does not aim to be – nor is it Everybody Loves Raymond. (Here I’m getting onboard with that apples-oranges-bananas style debate and then some.) Iain isn’t so far off when he picks The West Wing as a decent comparator: The Good Wife is a comfy, brightly-lit show about good people trying to do nice things in intelligent ways.

What it also attempts to be, however, is a morally ambiguous treatise on contemporary mores. The show’s protagonist, Alicia Florrick, is the eponymous spouse, standing by her imprisoned husband following a sex scandal which has seen him ejected as State Attorney of Cook County (a very strong Chris Noth). Played both sympathetically and belieavably by Julianna Margulies, Alicia has to make ends meet taken a job as a junior associate at the law firm of an old friend, Will Gardner (Josh Charles channeling Mal Reynolds). Stern, Lockhart and Gardner is a large corporate law firm which, in the series pilot, assigns Alician to pro bono work. By ‘Threesome’, the first season’s ninth episode, however, both the company and Gardner himself have been revealed as something less than Atticus Finch may have liked:  he and the firm’s other active partner, Diane Lockhart, are admonished by the crusading civil rights lawyer, and absentee founder, Jonas Stern. “The both of you treat the practice of law like its used cars!” he tells them.

The show itself, however, steers away from such easy, knee-jerk judgements. In the episode ‘Lifeguard’, Alicia’s initial – and all too obvious – explanation for a judge’s irregular sentencing pattern, that he is racially biased, is proven to be far from the case. This was a welcome development, since previous episodes had seen Alicia happen upon a solution – in one episode the timing of a sprinkler system, in another a scrap of paper which suggests prosecution jury tampering –  all too conveniently. Her good fortune and unimpeachable moral instincts at times undercut the greys in which the show is otherwise painted: the currency of a celebrity culture – chat shows, gossip colums, kiss and tells – are seen from new perspectives; racial profiling is first rejected and then exhibited by the likeable but nihilistic investigator, Kalinda Sharma; attractive good guys are usually up to no good, whilst oleaginous bad guys are allowed a sympathetic, even innocent, side. The Good Wife, show and character, does not condemn, but question.

If the latest episodes in the series suggest a further muddying of the season’s waters, that will be all to the good: there is in The Good Wife the germ of a very interesting show, as well as a very entertaining one. If it can allow its protagonist and her travails, too, to be tainted in the ways of those around her, then its examination of the laws that govern us – and the gap between public and private morality – could pack a memorable punch. And that slow reveal would have been part of the point.

Spilled Thrills: Richard Morgan’s ‘Black Man’

Black Man, by Richard Morgan
Black Man, by Richard Morgan

Richard Morgan’s Black Man won the 2008 Arthur C Clarke Award, beating out amongst others Stephen Baxter’s YA effort The H-Bomb Girl and Sarah Hall’s literary confection The Carhullan Army. I’d repeatedly been told that Black Man did things more cleverly than you’d hope to expect from Morgan’s brand of mil-sf-noir-thriller – Abigail Nussbaum, for instance, sounded faintly surprised that the novel had “something of substance to say”; Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria says plainly that, “Morgan is far from a one-note writer.”  This not, I was told, your standard thriller.

So it proved, but only so much. In her follow-up blog post on the novel, Abigail focused on gender, and undoubtedly this Morgan’s neatest trick is to take the thriller’s staple protagonist – the powerful, sociopathic male loner – and make an interrogation of him. Carl Marsalis, the black man of the title, is a thirteen, a genetically engineered throw-back to the violent proto-humans who were weeded out of the genepool when society first went agrarian. Brought back into the world by the superpowers’ need for super-soldiers, they are now bound in red tape, unable to procreate and limited to either serving their masters (something they are not genetically disposed to doing) or living in either terran or Martian deserts.

This makes for some wordy conversations about biological imperatives, identity and the difference between masculinity and femininity. But as Abigail points out in her blog piece, the book’s major female character, after 100 pages of characterisation prior to her first meeting with Marsalis, rapidly becomes a cypher once she shares the page with a thirteen. Nic argues that Sevgi “humanises Carl, both in the traditional narrative sense of being the reader’s window on his unusual world and mind, and because she anchors him to human society”, but it’s hard to buy this line entirely when later in the novel another female character comes along and slots right in to serve a similar purpose. (In Nic’s defense, she recognises that women are treated problematically throughout the text.) Sevgi’s page count plummets either way – her principle role is to provide counterpoint to Marsalis. Once they become a duo, she ceases to have much in the way of her own agency, following Marsalis around when she can and disappearing when she doesn’t. Where she does have her own story, for instance in her fraught relationship with her father, ultimately that too becomes about Carl: we are treated to scenes of Carl and Ertekin Senior discussing the woman in taciturn, masculine ways.

Also Black Man, by Richard Morgan
Also Black Man, by Richard Morgan

Is this the point? Perhaps: Black Man makes great play of the idea that we are trapped by our biology; Marsalis and Ertekin may sideline the “feminine” (defined in Black Man, at risk of appearing flippant, as anything which does not make things explode) just because that’s how they’re wired, and where Sevgni becomes Carl’s sidekick likewise. But if this is true of the book’s characters (and what a useful handwave for the author), it is doubly true of the book itself. I think Martin hit the right note when he wrote that “Black Man is clearly still a case of the author having his cake and eating it.” That is, Black Man is locked into the tropes, structure and outlook of the average thriller, but has stirred into the mix some opportunities for the characters to sit down and talk about things which appeal to critics. The follow-through, however, is more war-war than jaw-jaw: though undoubtedly its investigation of identities biological and cultural is at times challenging and thoughtful, when it comes time for action and plot, Morgan knows on which side his bread is buttered.

I was also struck by Morgan’s constructed future: both Nic and Abigail rightly point out that the world-building in Black Man is sinuous stuff, managing both to inhabit its own milieu whilst reflecting ours. Superpower struggles, religious tensions, and racism shape a time which is no dystopia but whichs seems regardless less comfortable than our own. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Morgan’s literalising of the Jesusland meme – it made for a good joke, but a less compelling political reality. Its execution was not helped, alas, by a cast of characters pouring disparagement of cartoon proportions upon ‘Jesusland’, with only one poor dupe to defend it. It’s not just that the explanations given for secession are inadequate; it is also that we are asked to accept prima faciethe worst prejudices of Guardianistas, and this alone – aligned a less than rigorous engagement with ideas of economic collapse, climate change and nationalism – undermines our conception of the practical political basis by which Morgan’s states might operate. Again, perhaps these questions are not ones the thriller is best placed to answer – but the reader in that case wonders why they were posed in the first place.

Black Man is superb at action set pieces, competent with its dialogue and characterisation, and possesses a welcome intellectual curiosity. Once the reader becomes used to being impressed that Morgan even tried to put all these elements together, however, it is possible to begin to wonder to what end they are ultimately used. (Nic says some very wise things about how the book’s nobler ideas are twisted by its baser instincts.) It isn’t that Black Man is a cynical book – merely that Morgan enjoys writing the sort of novel which cannot ultimately support the thematic weight he tries to graft onto it. This creates a book very much with two sides, one of which always holds the trump card (which is naturally the one marked ‘explosions’). The question to be asked of Black Man, a novel which manages to be an exciting but ultimately a curious read, must inevitably be, “if you’re so self-aware, why don’t you change?” The Jessica Rabbit response – I’m just drawn that way – proves less satisfying than it read when coming from the mouth of Carl Marsalis.

EDIT: For some reason, I’d been sure I’d linked to the reviews mentioned in the opening paragraph; it was brought to my attention I’d forgotten to, for which apologies to the reviewers. Curse my puny human memory etc. Links now (albeit belatedly) in place!